Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Warner Christmas

This week a Christmas goodie bag arrived from Warner Brothers for me.  I waited until everyone else had left the house as my lot are like hyenas sniffing around an entertainment carcass whenever boxes like this arrive.  Safely on my own I opened Santa’s sack and out popped 3 DVD’s.  The Dark Knight Rises, New Year’s Eve and Polar Express, something for each one of us.

Obviously I snagged Dark Knight Rises, the final instalment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy.  Nolan’s Batman is a dark and moody version and steers clear of the cheesiness of previous incarnations.  The special effects are breathtaking especially the overhead shots of Gotham City as it turns into a warzone.  I won’t give anything else away, but it’s a must see film and had me gripped from start to finish.  Watch out for a star turn by Tom Hardy as Bane, with Michael Caine and Gary Oldman returning to their rolls of Alfred and Commissioner Gordon.
I got a bit sneaky with ‘New Year’s Eve’, I’m not a massive fan of ensemble rom-coms (I obviously need to get more in touch with my feminine side) so I suggested to the Mrs that she spend a nice evening on her own with a glass of wine, some chocolate and a DVD whilst I go out and do some last minute shopping.  She readily agreed and having already finished my Christmas shopping anyway, I popped down the pub for a few hours.
The Mrs thoroughly enjoyed the film which basically I host of stars in intertwining stories all based in New York on New Year’s Eve.  I may even give it a sneaky watch myself, but obviously when nobody else is about, I have to keep up appearances.
Finally there’s Polar Express, a motion capture computer-animated fantasy film that had become a Christmas Classic since its release 8 years ago.  It features Tom Hanks in a variety of rolls and the kids had been hassling me since it arrived to put it on for them.  I didn’t really intend to watch it, I had decided to use the time to tackle their bedrooms, or at least read the paper, but I found myself drawn in to the film and ended up sitting with them and watching it through to the end.  It’s a great feel good movie and one I won’t mind watching more than once, which is a good thing as the kids want to watch it again already.
So there you go, 3 films to cater for everyone in the household and all would make great gifts for Christmas.  Many thanks to Warner Brothers for the freebies and have a Happy Movie Watching Christmas.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Absence

A few weeks ago we kept Kaede off school because she had been up all night coughing and looked generally unwell.  We still had to take Nate to school, so as she walked past Kaede’s classroom The Mrs spoke to her teacher, told her the situation and that was that.  Or so we thought.

A week later we received a letter from her school, Our Lady of Perpetual Motion, which said the following:

“We do not appear to have received a letter concerning Kaede’s absence on the Wed 3/10/12.  WE would be grateful if you could complete the tear-off slip below, stating the reason for absence, and return it to school as soon as possible.  If no absence slip is received by the school then, unfortunately, the absence will be registered as unauthorised.”

Well they wanted a letter and a letter they got:
Further to your letter dated 10 October 2012 querying Kaede’s absence from school on 3 October 2012 and further absence of a letter explaining said absence.
On the day in question my Wife made the heinous error of actually informing Miss ****** in a verbal face to face type fashion that Kaede would indeed be absent on that day and the reasons for that absence.  Unfortunately I was not at the morning drop-off as I had stayed behind to look after Kaede.  If I had of been present I would have patiently explained to my wife that she should have stood outside the school office and rung the school phone number to report Kaede’s absence.  Of course, it now seems that that also would have been erroneous as a letter is now required for a single days absence.
Firstly I apologise for the lack of a hand written letter but unfortunately my calligraphy skills leave a lot to be desired.  In fact they have oft been likened to the trail a diarrheatic spider leaves as he crawls towards a toilet.
The reasons for Kaede’s absence from school on 3 October 2012 can be simply explained but I feel that, due to my previously mentioned administrative error, you deserve a full explanation for said absence.  I hope the following will be indeed that.
Kaede was born on 23 February 2005, it was rather a cold and wet day, and in fact at one point we actually had snow.  This prompted, a rather rash one as it turned out, a suggestion by myself that we should give her the middle name of Yukionna – which means ‘snow fairy’ in Japanese.  Despite the copious amounts of gas and air, pethidine and adrenaline running through my Wife’s system, she still had the good sense to verbally slap me down for the idiot I was obviously being.  To this day Kaede remains middle name free.
Five days later we brought Kaede home for the first time, it was a joyous day for all of us.  Well I say all of us, Kaede cried a lot and when she did smile I actually think it was wind, although I didn’t tell her mother that, sometimes it’s best not to shatter illusions too early.
The first six months were hectic, of course they were, but we struggled on through with the dangled promise of a night of uninterrupted sleep on the horizon – that day never came.  From aged six months Kaede would cough throughout the night, waking first herself and then us up.  As is the want of anxious parents, we took Kaede to our local GP and we were prescribed the first of many liquid paracetamol prescriptions.  After a further six months I was actually convinced that she drank more paracetamol than milk, although I’m sure that’s an exaggeration on my part.
From aged 12 to 24 months we saw a plethora of Doctors (I once read that the collective for a bunch of Doctors was a Quack of Doctors but I remain unconvinced as to the veracity of that), all of whom had a different explanation as to her ill-health.  Six different explanations with only one thing in common – the problem was not of their speciality.  Kaede became the equivalent of a human pass-the-parcel with your reward being a hacking two year old.
It was at aged two that fate and the NHS finally shone on us.  Upon witnessing my Wife’s near-on physical breakdown in the surgery reception, a kindly old Doctor finally recommended a specialist in chest and lungs and arranged an appointment.  We attended this appointment with not much hope in our hearts, after all we had had the health carrot dangled in front of us before.  Like doubting-Thomas’s we trudged into the room only to find the light at the end of the tunnel.  Kaede had a form of acid reflux that began with G and had too many vowels in it.  The acid had been creeping up from her stomach as she slept and like an unwelcome traveller in a disused car park, started to camp out in Kaede’s lungs.  With the help of one pill, taken thrice daily for two weeks, she was all but cured.  She had to remain on antibiotics for a solid two years, but eventually all was good and she started to sleep through the night.
All this leads to the night of 2 October 2012, an evening that started as normal but soon went to hell in a hand-cart.  At approximately 20.17 I heard a slight cough emanating from Kaede’s bedroom.  It was only a slight cough and your average parent probably would not have heard it.  We are not average parents however and despite the slightly high volume of the TV (we were watching Boardwalk Empire and it can be a little loud in places) we sat up like a pair of hyperactive meerkats.  I placed my hand on my Wife’s arm to calm her, reduced the volume on the TV and cocked an ear towards the front room door.
There it was again, definitely a cough and definitely Kaede.
I trudged up the stairs with some reluctance it must be said, fearing the worst but trying to remain optimistic, it may have been a dust-bunny or something.  I sat outside Kaede’s door playing Angry Birds on my iPhone to pass the time (with the volume off of course) and waited to see how bad it would get.  The cough persisted and started to get louder and chestier.  I started to fear that her old illness was back, although the chances were that  it was because she had been running around the garden without a coat on despite being told to put one on four times.
We administered the standard duo of cough mixture and paracetamol suspension and crossed our fingers.  By 22.00 the coughing still hadn’t stopped, it wasn’t at an alarming level but just enough to keep her awake.  She slept with my wife in the family bed that night, with myself decamping to the sofa bed we have downstairs (a sofa bed that was bought with exactly these situations in mind).
Both my Wife and Kaede had a sleepless night that night (which may explain my Wife’s mistake in actually telling the teacher face to face what the problem was with Kaede) and we decided that Kaede should stay at home that day and try to catch up on some sleep.  Her cough seemed to have improved and we felt that a day of rest and maybe some educational television, such as the Discovery or History Channel, would do her the world of good.  This was indeed the case and she steadily improved throughout the day.
My Wife and I had a rather frank discussion that night and we decided that unless we had a repeat of the previous night, Kaede could return to school the following day.  A quick perusal of your attendance records will show you that Kaede did, in fact, attend school the next day as we did not have a repeat performance of the previous nights coughing.
I hope this letter is sufficient for your records, in fact it may be a good idea to carefully glue it to the front of her file, thereby saving me the trouble of explaining what we call ‘The Sleepless Coughing Years’ again.  If you have any further questions or if there is anything else you need explained regarding this unfortunate situation, please, please, do not hesitate to write to me and ask.  I have also decided to carry a pad of Post-it notes with me at all times, this way I can write the reasons for any future absences on them and hand the note straight to you.
Jamie Harding,
Parent of Kaede Harding.
Well one of them, she has two.
The other being my wife Patricia Harding.

Monday, October 15, 2012

As funny as a heart attack

So I’m running, I can’t hear them coming but I know they are.  I stupidly turn around and they’re even nearer now, a row of snarling stone teeth.  The weeping angels are catching me.  Thankfully I wake up, cursing my daughter for making me watch Doctor Who again.

But my god, the pain in my chest, it feels like one of the kids are sitting on me.  I sit up and check, it’s not unheard of for one of them to jump on me as a loving wake up call.  Nope, no kids, just an incredible heavy pain across my upper chest.  Now I’m worried.
Could the dream really have given me a heart attack, however mild?  A more likely alternative was surely the ox-cheek curry I made last night, not crazy hot but nice and spicy.  I decided to sleep it off.
Having nodded off I then dreamt I was sharing a pint with a somewhat pissed David Cameron, a captive audience as he lectured me on the necessity of economic prudence.  To be honest I would rather have the weeping angels back.
Again I wake.  I take a deep breath, hold it and hope.  Nope, still in pain and now a healthy dose of panic has been thrown into the mix.  Of course it was heartburn, it had to be, but I started to wonder about how many people ignored the first signs of a heart attack purely because they had eaten a curry the night before?  Maybe the curry was giving a false negative, as it were?  I mean, having a curry can’t be a cure or preventative to having a heart attack can it?
But still, my irrational overriding worry was that if I did go to the hospital and it did turn out to be heartburn, well, then I would forever be known as a Sean.  Sean is a close friend of mine who called an ambulance when he had a heart attack only to be given a Rennie at A&E.  And of course we let him forget about it, not.
I didn’t really want to tell the Mrs, she’s not exactly known to be a calming influence in these situations and when she caught me clutching my chest as I was getting dressed, she reacted with a predictable but vaguely acceptable level of drama.  She suggested that she should Google the symptoms and on the basis I wanted some peace and quiet whilst I got ready, I acquiesced.  When I went downstairs 15 minutes later all she had found out was that Jo had posted yet another cute picture of Tallhulabelle McLilly and Phil the Postboy’s piles were playing up.  God bless Facebook, the medical almanac of the brain-dead.
She then quietly reminded me that we were due at church this morning and for once I didn’t complain, I figured I would need all the help I could get.
Upon arrival we sat ourselves down in a fairly empty pew, all the better for me to nod off in, with the only witness to my upcoming blasphemy being Michelle and her daughter.  Looking around the church I noticed how many stone angels there actually were in the church and I felt the pain in my chest starting to increase.  I started to think that coming to church was a bad idea, then Josie and the J’s turn up like a pack of cartoon cats fighting, and I knew it was.
The priest walked in and the place began to sound like a Hendrix concert, well the feedback did anyway.  His radio mike clearly clashing with his hearing aid and I watched a hundred pensioners rock out and adjust their own earpieces.
It was during the first reading, Marks gospel to Leviticus – “May he with the most pious face cast the first stare” – that I had my own epiphany.  I would consume a load of things that could potentially make heartburn worse, if the pain increased then the problem was heartburn, if it didn’t then it was obviously time for a trip to A&E.
After a quick search of Binggle I had my list of consumables and, with the help of a trip to TFI Thursdays, I started on my painful voyage of discovery.
I started with a large vodka and bitter lemon with a pint of Budweiser to wash it down.  Ordering a large plate of JD Buffalo wings, French fries and onion rings, I felt guilt free, safe in the knowledge that I was conducting a medical experiment that could save my life.  Washing all that lot down with a Bloody Mary I ordered dessert, the Chocolate Mountain of Dairy Surprise (the surprise being the amount they charged for it).  I contentedly patted my now distended stomach (OK, even more distended) and awaited the results of my experiment.
I lay here now, it’s 2am and thankfully I’m in my own bed rather than the hospitals.  The pain got worse, of course it did, so now I’ve settled for the old fashioned remedy for heartburn – Pepto Bismol and JD, over ice of course.
Just in case I was wrong, thanks for reading me over all these years.  Please leave loads of really complimentary comments about how my writing changed your life and put a never-ending smile on that cute old face of yours, my grieving family would no doubt appreciate it. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Gaggia Gelatiera

A couple of weeks ago those lovely people at Phillips asked me if I wanted to try out an ice cream maker.  Being the dutiful husband that I am, I checked with the wife first, although unfortunately I did so within earshot of the mini-monsters.

ME:  Do we want an ice cream maker?
THE MRS:  What kind of ice cream maker?
KIDS:  Ice cream?
ME:  The kind that makes ice cream of course.
THE MRS:  I mean what make is it?
KIDS:  Ice Cream?
ME:  Does it matter?
THE MRS:  Of course it does.
KIDS:  Ice Cream?
ME:  Aren’t they all the same?
THE MRS:  Nope. So again, what make is it?
KIDS:  Ice Cream?
ME:  Gaggia
THE MRS:  Get it. Now.

So I kindly took them up on their offer as I feared my life would be in danger if I didn’t.  A few days later my Gaggia Gelatiera ice cream maker turned up and, like a kid at Christmas, I hastily ripped it out of its box.  It has its own refrigeration unit which is good news if you want your ice cream nice and quick and want to dispense with all that ‘freeze ingredients, mix together and freeze again’ type nonsense you get with other machines.  As long as your ingredients are cool when you put them in, then you get ready to eat ice cream in 30 minutes, perfect.  The bad news was that that meant I couldn’t instantly start using the machine for a sneaky ice cream session whilst the kids where at school as, with all fridges, you have to let them settle first.
Later that evening, after the kids had gone to bed, I decided to get going with a basic vanilla ice cream.  I’ve posted the recipe at the bottom of the blog (as I will with all the ones I mention) but it’s pretty simple stuff to be honest.  The only prep that took any time at all was letting the milk cool down after you had placed the seeds from a vanilla pod in it and brought it to a boil.  Fiveteen minutes later I was pouring the contents into the Gaggia (after letting the unit pre-freeze itself for a whopping 5 minutes) and 30 minutes after that I was eating some of the best vanilla ice cream I had ever tasted.  The Mrs thought it was better than ‘restaurant’ ice cream and really rich (something she never says about me).
The next night after an afternoon of very loud coercion from the kids, I decided to make them some.  One problem, I had forgotten to buy any eggs.  No worries, the instruction manual had a quite simple ‘no egg ice cream’ recipe, so simple that the only difference was not adding the eggs.  It is at this stage that I must admit my ice cream ignorance, up until the day before I didn’t even realise that you put eggs in ice cream.  But now that I did know, well, I was slightly worried about how the egg-free version was going to turn out.  Well I needed have worried, it turns out like the ice cream you get from the ice cream vans, just with more substance.  The kids were mad for it and I was duly christened ‘The best Dad in the world - ever – again’.  Music to my ears.  I tasted some myself and preferred it to the egg version if I’m quite honest.  I’ve never really been an egg person anyway, I always thought that Humpty Dumpty had got what he deserved.
The next thing on the to-make list was sorbet.  I’m a massive lover of the stuff and will always pick it ahead of ice cream, nothing better than a tangy lemon sorbet.  3 lemons, some sugar, some water and 30 minutes later – Ta da – lemon sorbet tangy enough to make you pull the ‘Priest hearing a dirty joke’ face.
Days later as I was planning my next ice cream, I realised that I hadn’t taken any pictures of my creations to adorn this piece and when you see the pictures I did end up taking you will see why.  Our camera is great for underwater and action shots, not so good for arty beautiful food ones.  So please forgive, I tried my best and then I gave up.
A firm favourite of The Mrs is raspberry ripple and I felt sufficiently confident to give it a whirl.  I used the eggless ice cream recipe, throw out the vanilla, halved the sugar and added some blitzed up raspberries that I kept in a separate pot.  As the ice cream started to solidify I slowly poured the raspberries in and hoped for the best.
Well as you can see, it didn’t exactly look like the traditional raspberry ripple, but by god it tasted awesome.  After further research, (I asked one of the Mums in the playground) I realised my mistake – I should have taken the ice cream out earlier, swirled the juice in and then left it to set in the freezer, better luck next time and all that.
In my quest to find some new and slightly unusual flavours I picked the brains of Kate (the aforementioned raspberry ripple expert whose food blog is at .)  Amongst other things, she suggested strawberry and basil ice cream which definitely fit in the strange but yummy category that I was looking for.  I tore a big bunch of basil leaves up and threw them into the heated milk and let it all cool down.  I then whizzed up a load of strawberries (I know, you’re astounded by my high levels of accuracy) and threw them into the cream, halved the sugar and that was that.
What a taste-bud surprise.  I knew what was coming my way yet still my tongue did a little dance of confusion with the first mouthful.  My wife however found it was not exactly to her taste, a ‘little bit too adult’ don’t you know.  Personally I feel this is the fault of her taste buds, she has what doctors call ‘Lucozade-tongue’ and therefore has the palette of a Chilean miner.
I now seem to have become an ice cream monster, I spend hours daydreaming about new recipes and concoctions and it’s all Gaggia’s fault.  This machine is an absolute dream to work with, no mucking around pre-freezing stuff, or waiting around for a mixture to freeze.  I’m yet to find a lump of ice or frozen milk in anything yet, it’s delivered a perfect smooth mix every time.  It’s fast, it comes with a separate removable bowl for when you want to make larger batches of ice cream and it’s easy to clean (especially if you bribe one of the kids to do it with the promise of more ice cream.)  I started this trial wondering if an ice cream maker was really necessary and I’m now fully convinced, especially when it comes to the kids.  I can control the amount of sugar going in it (I normally halve it), I know the eggs used are free-range and as long as I have some milk and cream in the house I can shut them up within delicious ice cream that takes 30 minutes to make – perfect.
I have to thank Phillips, Gaggia and Sam from Ketchum Pleon for providing me with the Gaggia Gelatiera but I do have an apology to make - I can’t return the machine because a magpie swooped through an open kitchen window and flew away with it, honest. 
Now, who’s for Pimms sorbet?

Vanilla Ice Cream
200g milk
half a vanilla pod
4 egg yolks (skip these for the eggless version)
150g sugar
200g double cream
small pinch of salt
Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod and add to the milk in a small saucepan, almost bring to the boil, remove from the heat and allow to cool for 15 mins.  Mix the yolks with the sugar and salt, beating until well blended.  Then add the milk and cream.  Pour into the pre-cooled ice cream maker and set the timer for 30 minutes.
Lemon Sorbet
3 large lemons
180g sugar
250g of water
Grate the peel of half a lemon and then juice all three lemons.  Mix all the ingredients together.  Pour into the pre-cooled ice cream maker and set the timer for 30 minutes.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Missing Who?

So my eldest daughter started University this week, which is surprising really as she is only seven years old.  Well in my head she is anyway.  I can still see her in her bridesmaid dress when me and the Mrs got married, she really was seven then and in a part of my brain she’s kind of stuck there - forever innocent, immune to the charms of alcohol and late nights.  I have a picture of that moment that sits facing me every time I sit at the breakfast bar in the kitchen, which is every day, but in the 10 years odd that it’s been on the wall I don’t think I’ve looked at it until this week.  Sure I’ve seen it before, smiled at it, ahh isn’t she cute at it, but I never really looked at it until she left.
I have to be honest, I didn’t really think her starting Uni would impact on me too much.  Sure I knew I would worry about her, anyone that can slice through a tendon in their finger getting ice cream out of a tub needs to be worried about (she was using a carving knife…I know), but I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of helplessness that would accompany the worry.  She is 280 miles away, I can’t just run upstairs and make things right for her.  I can’t make sure she’s getting enough sleep, enough food, enough anything. 
She’s her own woman now and I have to let go.
But it’s more than just letting go, it’s about changing my whole mindset.  How do you bring up a child who’s an adult?  When a toddler is starting to walk you child-proof the house – you make sure all sharp corners are rounded, you make sure there is nothing they can pull down on themselves, you make sure the electrical sockets are covered.  But how do you child-proof a University?  I can’t make sure she’s doing her course-work, I can’t vet the tattooed half-wit she met in the Student Union, I can’t even make sure that she drinks JD instead of Vodka so people know she’s drunk and not stupid.
I’ve prepared her the best that I can, I’ve taught her to cook (kind of), I’ve taught her to do her washing (but not how to hang it up so you don’t have to iron it) and I’ve taught her how to take verbal abuse (then dish it back in spades).  I tried to teach her how to keep a bedroom tidy, but failed.  I tried to teach her that all men are bad news, another failure.  I tried to teach her to look after her money but who am I kidding, I failed that one myself and still do.
I’m missing her.
I know, it’s crazy.  How can you miss someone that gets up at the crack of noon on a regular basis?  How can you miss someone who steals all your bandwidth with the constant downloading of Christ knows what?  How can you miss constantly answering the door to the postman who has another five packages from eBay, all addressed to her? 
But I do. 
Every time I drive home from the morning school run I wonder if I’m going to be greeted by the blaring music that indicates she’s up as I open the door – and every time I open the door to silence I’m surprised and then I remember, she’s not here anymore.  Every time I go to have a shower and there’s still hot water left, I’m puzzled - and then I remember, she’s not here to use it all anymore.
I miss her rants about something being ‘un-realistic’ in an episode of Futurama and her missing the irony of that statement.  I miss watching her and Kaede watching Doctor Who.  I just miss.
I am happy for her, I really am.  It was us that insisted that she would get a better University experience if she wasn’t living at home and it wasn’t just because a small part of me was looking forward to getting the big bathroom back.  I genuinely believe that this will be the making of her, this will shape her future, mould her into the awesome woman that I know she is.  I’m just not ready to share her with the world yet.  It doesn’t help when I read Facebook entries like ‘Going to Wet & Wild UV Foam Party, 21.00 to 03.00’.  Then again it’s my fault for reading it, I may have to un-friend her.
I’m having to learn a new way of communicating with her (mostly by text of course), a non-judgemental, you’re a big girl now type way.  I find that if I ignore my first reaction, pause for a 10-count and then reply, it seems to work.  As I’m writing this she’s just text me to say that she’s going surfing today in Newquay.  Naturally, it being mid-September an’ all, I felt obliged to tell her to not run around with wet hair or she’ll catch her death.  I can just imagine the face she pulled when she read that.
I’m slowly getting used it though, my heart seems to be mending though there’s still a hole there that will only be filled when she comes back at Christmas.  And I’m sure that when she does, dragging a suitcase of washing to be done, all will be well again and I can go back to moaning about the lack of bandwidth, water and silence.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Philips Avance Grill

This is a sponsored post brought to you, in part, by those clever people at Philips.  They have recently launched a product perfect for our English Summers… an indoor Barbeque.  So when they asked me if I would like to try one out the Avance Grill, I took one look at my rain-filled, rusty BBQ, sitting forlornly in the garden and jumped at the chance.  I come from a family that frequently BBQ’s standing under an umbrella, in fact my Dad cooks T-bone steaks on the BBQ every New Years Eve, desperately trying to ignore the cold and wet – so I’ll be one up on them from the start.

I have to admit that I was quite intrigued at the idea of BBQing indoors and I reconciled myself with the fact that the kitchen needed decorating anyway, so any smoke related accident would be fine.

Once the unit turned up I soon realised I would have nothing to worry about.  In essence the Indoor BBQ is part griddle, part hotplate.  It has a small pot built into it that you can fill with woodchips (that come supplied), so as you cook your meat the woodchips slowly burn and release hickory scented smoke.  It has a removable glass lid so you can see what’s going on, whilst trapping in the smoke.  They recommend that you place the BBQ on a board underneath your cooker hood and I had switched on my extractor to full whack in anticipation of bilious amounts of smoke, but again it proved an unnecessary worry as the small amount of smoke that did escape was easily dispersed on the lowest setting.
At the back on the grill there is also a reservoir which can be filled with water or wine and herbs which then creates a hot steam that not only adds flavour, but keeps the meat you’re cooking nice and tender. 
They also supply an easy-to-follow recipe book with fish, poultry, meat, veggie and fruit sections and I picked myself out a couple to try out:
Smoke-grilled rib eye with a black pepper rub grilled red and green peppers.
Smokey maple syrup glazed duck breast, grilled crostini.
As a committed carnivore I started with the rib eye steak.  I loaded up the pot with woodchips, filled the reservoir with water and thyme then turned the grill on. 
Every time I opened the lid to turn the steak I got a lovely whiff of smoke and herbs and the steaks seemed to be cooking nice and evenly.  The recipe said to cook the meat for 18 minutes in total, but I cooked it for a little bit less as I prefer it a bit rarer (and to be honest the smell was making me hungry).  I hastily made up a salad as I let the meat rest and then tucked in.
Man the steaks tasted honest-to-god good.  The smoke and the thyme had mixed well together and the steak had stayed nice and juicy, not the easiest thing to achieve when cooking them outdoors.  Recipe one was a winner.
The following night was duck night, not a meat I had cooked before as I had always been worried about over/under cooking – I wasn’t holding out much hope and the Mrs had the Chinese delivery menu handy.
Again I filled the pot with woodchips, but this time I filled the reservoir with red wine.  The menu called for the duck to be cooked for 16 minutes and again, every time I opened the lid to turn the duck I got hit with an aroma bomb.  I then glazed the duck and kept turning it for a couple of minutes before taking it off the grill and letting it rest.

Another hit.  The duck was the right side of pink, full of flavour and something I would definitely cook again.  Unfortunately due to a glass or three of wine being consumed, I forgot to take any finished photos so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
So far I had cooked two semi-expensive cuts of meat, so I decided to test the grill with some ropey old pork chops to see if it was the quality of meat I was impressed with, or the grill itself.  I filled the pot with some whole Szechuan peppers, and the reservoir with water and some sliced ginger. 

I cooked the chops for about 8 minutes and at the end of that time they were cooked through, succulent and the hint of ginger and Szechuan really added to the taste.
At the front of the grill there is a removable drip tray that catches all the unwanted grease and the grill is non-stick and comes apart easily, which all adds up to an easy cleaning experience (something I was dreading to be honest).
All in all I have been very happy with the Avance Grill and I can see myself using it on a regular basis, including taking it with us to Center Parcs this October.  It’s easy to use, easy to clean, cooks beautifully and really adds a smokey flavour to your food.  This will definitely not be going into the gadget graveyard that is my cupboard under the stairs.
Many thanks to Philips and Samantha at Ketchum Pleon for supplying me with the Avance Grill for testing.  Homebase and Argos are stocking the Avance Grill and it’s priced at £120 (RRP).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Here’s a question.  Is my cousin’s wife my cousin-in-law, my cousin-out-law or just someone my cousin married?  Its questions like these that, despite having access to the internet, I wonder about for days.  For the sake of this blog I shall call her Gemma, for that is her name and she is indeed married to my cousin. 
Well Gemma thinks it’s about time I wrote about something serious rather than prattling on about scanning children through tills, SatanClaus, dubious medical procedures and Fernando Alonso.  She also happened to mention that if I didn’t then she would get her Husband’s Mum, my Aunt, to stop giving me free beer in the pub she owns whenever I pop down to Devon.  Now as I’m visiting on my hols next month, I thought it would be the wise thing to go along with her Machiavellian scheme.

Gemma works for a small grassroots charity called EdUKaid that helps African children get a better quality education.  They work with communities in rural Tanzania to improve the teaching and learning environment through building and upgrading schools, and providing vital educational services, resources and support. They also support individual children to go to school through a child sponsorship programme.  Gemma and my Aunt Joan recently visited Tanzania and the schools are in a terrible state of disrepair.

EdUKaid try to help out in the following ways:
  • They upgrade schools with basic resources and facilities. (Blackboards, desks &chairs, teacher’s desks and chairs, cupboards, replastering, flooring, walkways, internal and external painting.
  • They provide/upgrade toilet facilities.
  • They upgrade teacher’s housing (to increase motivation).
  • They introduce and deliver pre primary classes (4-6 years).
  • They provide support and sponsorship opportunities to the most vulnerable children in southern Tanzania.
  • They support local/provide local jobs and training.

The things that they really need at the moment are child sponsors – for £15 a month (50p a day) they can cover the costs for uniforms, books, pens etc, exam fees and a bicycle.  I’m not going to start getting all condescending and point out how little you can buy nowadays for 50p, I mean the Daily Mail costs 55p for god’s sake and how much of a waste of money is that?  I’m just going to paraphrase Arrested Development and say “50p means a snack for me, but it means a big deal to you.”
I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, that’s your priest’s job, but here’s a profile of a typical student to hopefully inspire you to help.
Mwanahamisi Isa Tabu is a typical sponsored student currently in secondary school.

Born in 1996, Mwanahamisi Isa used to live with her parents in a small village 20km away from the village of Lwelu. Her mother and father were unemployed and had 6 other children. As they could no longer take care of them all, Mwanahamisi Isa was brought to her aunt (Asha Natime) and uncle (Mohamedi Abdallah Naukola), in Lwelu soon after her 1st birthday.  They have been her guardians ever since.

In Lwelu, Mwanahamisi Isa lives in a small mudhut together with her aunt, uncle and 6 other relatives. Because there are only 4 beds in the house, Mwanahamisi Isa shares a bed with her youngest cousin Amina Isa. Her aunt and uncle are peasants. They grow cassava and maize, and own a coconut palm. During the weekends, Mwanahamisi Isa and her aunt often walk 20 km to collect shellfish from the seaside. Afterwards, they sell them at the local market.

Mwanahamisi Isa is currently attending Mikindani Secondary School as she successfully passed her standard 7 exams last year. When she grows up, she hopes to become a nurse and help her family.

“I feel very happy to get support from EdUKaid and I promise to EdUKaid that I will never let you down.  Because we are very poor, I will make sure that I study hard and my hope is to be a nurse in the future and help my family especially my Grandmother who I live with.  Some people they ask for the help when they are not so poor but I ask for the support because I am very poor.  Therefore I would like to express my thanks to EdUKaid.  My Grandmother did not expect that I would be in Secondary education.”
If you fancy sponsoring a child you can contact EdUKaid at or you could visit their website at for more information (It’s ok, I wouldn’t take my word for it either).  They have a facebook page at and of course are all twittered up at @edukaid

You hear all these stories about charities wasting their money on champagne for the staff and all that nonsense, but I can assure you that Gemma is a Pint of Bitter and a packet of crisps type of lass (my cousin married up) so there will be none of that going on.
If truth be known, it was my intention to write this piece as a favour for my cousin-in-out-whatever-law and then leave it at that, I’ve done my bit, I’ve helped spread the word haven’t I?  But I will be putting my money where my ever so large mouth is and sponsoring a child myself.  I will also be insisting that Gemma buys me a pint when I see her, it’s only fair right?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Lego Batman 2

Anyone that knows me would readily testify that I’m quite a keen gamer, maybe a bit too keen at times (those times being housework time, going to bed time and doing some DIY time).  So when I was asked if I would like a free copy of Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes to review, there was only going to be one possible answer – Yes siree bob.
I patiently waited for it to arrive and I promise I didn’t bug the postman too much (although he may tell you differently) and last Friday my patience was rewarded.  I reverently opened the mysterious black box with the batman emblem on it and the goodies were revealed in all their glory.  I let the kids argue over the other stuff and then informed the wife that I would have to play on the Xbox all day, purely in the name of research. 
I hadn’t played any of the Lego games before, but what they basically do is take a famous film of comic series and then, for want of a better made up word, lego-fy it.  The background, the cars and the people - everything made from Lego and all breakable.  I have to admit they have done a great job of recreating Gotham City; it still looks broody and dark but with the fun twist of it being in the Lego world.  It’s really hard to put into words how much fun can be had in randomly smashing things up and then collecting all the Lego pieces. 
The game is story led in which you take on The Joker and Lex Luthor, but you also have the added bonus of it also being a sandbox game (to the uninitiated this means you have a huge city to roam about and pretty much do what you want).  To start with you have control of Batman and Robin who each have their own strengths and characteristics that have to be used together to get through each level.  As you get further through the game you get to play more of the characters, the best one being Superman with his ability to fly, freeze and cut through things with his heat vision. 
I played through the game on my own, easily switching between the 2 heroes by a quick press of the Y button, but where it really comes into its own is when it’s played by two players.  There was no way my lot were going to let me hog the game, so I soon had to let Kaede (7) and Nate (5) start their own adventure.  Nate isn’t much of a gamer yet and I think he may be a tad too young to really get into the game but I have to admit they both surprised me.  They are not really known for their ability to cooperate and yet this seemed to bring out the best in them.  When Nate got stuck somewhere not only did Kaede patiently talk him through what he should be doing, but if that didn’t work he would quite happily release his controller and let her get him past the obstacle. 
Kaede would cope with most of the problem solving, certain suits do certain things to get you through the levels, but I would normally remain in ear-shot to help them out when needed.  The game has a dynamic split screen, so you can both be in completely different parts of the level without any issue.  It also has an easy drop in/drop out option so when Nate did have enough, he could just leave Kaede playing the game without her having to start again in the traditional manner.
Needless to say the kids love it, I would say they are a quarter of the way through the storyline and they have shown no signs of boredom as of yet.  And as an added bonus, when they are not playing (because it’s my turn obviously), they have renewed their love of building with real Lego.
As for me, I’ve been equally impressed; the sheer scale of the game is immense.  Whilst I’ve completed the main storyline, I don’t think I’m even a third of the way through everything you can do in Gotham City.  I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but you are most definitely rewarded once you’ve beaten the final boss and instead of putting the game down and moving on to the next one, I’m quite happily exploring and getting into mischief.
The world of Batman is normally quite a gloomy and violent one, but Lego have somehow made it a inherently charming place (I found myself playing with a smile on my face more often than not and some of the banter between Batman and Robin is priceless), whilst still retaining the ominous feel of a Gotham City overrun by bad guys.
Lego Batman 2 is out now on most platforms and in my opinion well worth the purchase whether you have kids or not.
Many thanks to Kayley at Feref for providing me with my free copy of Batman and on that note I’m off to the Batcave to take on The Penguin.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Drifting and Doughnuts

As a blogger of ill-repute, I am occasionally invited to attend sponsored PR events.  Sometimes I come back from these events wondering what on earth I was going to write about.  Other times I would come back needing a hot shower and a cold drink to erase the memories of the limp canapés and warm wine.  But sometimes, not often mind, I come back with the
‘OhMyGodThatWasSoFrickingAwesomeIthinkMyHeadMayExplode’ feeling.  The Fastest Blogger event organised by that I attended last week was one of those events.

Their invite was quite simple, come down to Silverstone and spend a day driving a Caterham 7.  I am not beyond introspection and there is a reason that I only drive a Ford Fiesta – It’s because I’m an idiot.  Put me in a car and I want to drive it fast, hence only trusting myself with a Fiesta on the roads – anything faster would be a disaster (with a ghetto blaster, and a headmaster).  So there was no way I was going to turn down the opportunity to drive one of those beasts.
Upon arrival I met the Caterham team and my fellow bloggers and we were given a safety briefing.  The instructor tended to look at me a lot whilst giving his warnings, I think he could smell the speed-freak in me.  He then explained that they were going to teach us how to drift a car and do doughnuts (you know, the ones policemen don’t like, the tyre smoking ones not the glazed ones).  Drifting a car involves careful manipulation of brake, accelerator and wheel coupled with lots of screeching, smoke and adrenaline soaked fun.
There were three cars and 17 bloggers so in between turns we would sit down and have a bit of a natter.  I had sat myself down with Miss Daisy and her daughter Megan (sorry Wendy, I did warn you) and soaked up the sun in-between bouts of boy-racing.  There was banter, there was laughs and occasionally there was clapping when one of us achieved a spectacular doughnut.
Believe me, there is no better feeling in the world than screeching sideways around a corner with your heart threatening to jump out of chest and not getting nicked for it.  We were a mixed bunch in the driving talent department (the best line I heard was “This is the first car I’ve ever been insured on”) but by the end of the day all of us had improved beyond our wildest expectations.  I had started the day thinking that everyone would get all testosteroney and über-competitive, but there was a real sense of camaraderie as we all cheered each other around the final drifting course.

If you ever find yourself going to one of these events (and I strongly suggest you do), I can’t guarantee you the same weather – scorchio, or the same great laughs with fellow bloggers, but I can guarantee you will have a day you will remember for a very long time.

I want to thank the team at, the perfect place to find fathers day gifts (especially if my kids are reading this).  I’d also like to thank the Caterham 7 team for letting me thrash the nuts out of their cars, even after I thought I had broken one after a spectacular spin off the track.  The only negative thing about the whole day was having to drive my front wheel drive Fiesta home, all in the knowledge that it couldn’t recreate the day in my local Tesco’s car park.  Damn.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Our Greatest Team Rises

BP have recently launched a set of new medallions called the BP Legends Collection – a series of 12 medallions depicting ten British Olympic and two British Paralympic winning moments from past Games.  To help launch this they kindly invited me and the Mrs to the ‘Our Greatest Team Rises’ event at the Royal Albert Hall.  A star spangled event where the Hoi Polloi could mix it up with the bold and the beautiful (well from a distance anyway).

The situation demanded a Tux, something I wasn’t looking forward to.  Most days I can barely be bothered to put on jeans and I even have a special pair of them for ‘formal’ occasions, but several frowns and scowls convinced me to toe the line and tux up.
Before the event we got to meet and have a chat with Sir Steve Redgrave, without doubt our finest ever Olympian and whose face adorns the first medallion.  He happily posed for pics with us all and answered all things Olympic, including a story about all the traffic problems he encountered during the Atlanta Olympics.  As someone living right on top of the Olympic Park, it’s something I hoping isn’t repeated in a few months time.

There was an impressive list of performers at the event: Gary Barlow, Mel C, Will Young, Alfie Boe, The Feeling, Kimberly Walsh, Charlie Siem, The Noisettes and Spellbound (who hilariously sat in front of us after they had performed and instantly started tweeting en masse). We also had the pleasure of Davina McCall, John Bishop and Dermot O’Leary (who when we saw him outside my wife pushed me in the road in her haste to get to him) hosting the evening.  Plus, gasp, William and Cate, yep the real ones, also put in an appearance.
A great night was had by all and was topped off with a dash through Holborn station when the Station Announcer informed us as we got off the Piccadilly line train that “The last central line train will be leaving in two minutes.”  Cue a mad dash of Tux’s, evening gowns and various other late night drunks running through the station in fits of infectious, mad, breathless laughter.

The BP Legends Collection Medallions can be purchased from BP’s forecourts across the country. The first medallion is available for £1 together with an official presentation pack and the remaining 11 medallions will cost £2 each.  All profits from the sale of the Our Greatest Team Legends Collection will directly support Team GB and ParalympicsGB to help aspiring athletes deliver their best performance at London 2012 and beyond.
For more information about the Our Greatest Team Legends Collection and how you can start collecting the limited edition medallions, visit .

So as not to fall foul of the Blogging Police, this is a sponsored post (if you hadn’t guessed by now).  We attended the event as guests of BP and they even bought me a beer, but just one mind, they didn’t get me drunk and write this for me ok.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Sporting Chance

The notice on the door read “The children will be taking part in a sporting event so can you please ensure they are wearing sports clothing on Thursday…”  An innocent enough request, in fact it was quite polite of them to actually tell us rather than rely on the memory of a five year old, especially a five year old that can switch subjects faster than I can change TV channels. 

To be honest, it was by pure chance that I even saw the damned sign.  I’m normally so busy juggling book bags, lunch boxes and children that it’s as much as I can do to push the right child through the right classroom door, all in my haste to return the temporary peace and quiet of home.  But I did, so score one for me, Mr Responsible Dad for a change.  This new me may even start reading the school newsletters in future, it would be quite refreshing to be one step ahead of the game rather than standing outside locked school gates on an inset day.
I can then only presume that it was my new smug self confidence that made me forget about the notice until 9pm on the Wednesday night, shit buggery bollocks.  Now I have to decide whether to tell the Mrs now, or try to blag it in the morning.  Before deciding, I pop out to the kitchen to see if I have enough vodka left to help withstand the disdainful looks and tongue-lashing that I am about to receive.  Half a bottle, that’ll do it.  The fact she would be coming with us to drop the kids off in the morning settled the matter, time to face the music.
She took the news as well as could be expected to be fair.  I can only presume that she was relieved that I had remembered 12 hours before the event, rather than the usual 12 minutes.  Nate’s not the kind of kid that wears sports gear, apparently he looks so cute that he only ever gets bought ‘nice’ clothes.  It hadn’t really occurred to me until I needed it that we he didn’t have any of his own.  I decided I would put him in his sisters Arsenal kit, I knew it would fit him and it had been sunny all week so the emergency was over.
Over that was until we woke up on Thursday to clouds and ground frost, bugger.  No tracksuit in the house fit him, so I wrangled everyone together überfast.  I dressed him in the top and shorts for now and we would have to zip into Tesco’s on the way there.  We had an extra 15 minutes to play with so it was going to be tight, tight but doable.  
I’ve always believed in reincarnation, it just makes sense to me.  The trouble is that on mornings like this it becomes glaring obvious that I was either a Spanish Inquisitor, a Hun’s henchman, or a Traffic Warden in a previous life.  I got stuck behind a dustcart and then two Learners on the way there, the 15 minutes I thought we would get in Tesco’s had become six. 
The clothing section was in the far corner of the store and I can only imagine what we looked like running through the shop dragging two bewildered children behind us.  Looking back on it now, I would have loved to have seen the Security Camera footage of those mad five minutes.  The mirth we must have caused as we bounced from camera to camera.  Would they have been able to see the panic in my eyes, the beads of sweat forming on my forehead as we belted up and down the unending aisles of tat?  I like to think so.
We eventually arrived at the right aisle and started pulling clothes of the rails, desperately looking for the right size.  Size 7, size 7, size 4, size 6, size 3, size 8 – it was a numerical dyslexic’s nightmare.  Fortune eventually started to smile on us as we found a hoody (dark blue) and some jogging bottoms (grey) in a size 5.  The bottoms looked a bit long so despite the time ticking away, I got him to try them on.  A perfect fit (ish), but we had no time to lose so we left them on him and leaving the clothes section looking like opening day of the Next Christmas Sales, rushed back to the tills. 
The only ones open were the self service tills, so I picked Nate up and scanned his arse over the scanner.  I was then prompted to “Please place item in bagging area”, bugger, there was nothing else to do but drop Nate in the said area.  The till started to throw a paddy with a series of commands - “Unexpected item in bagging area” then “Are you using your own bags?” and finally “Please wait for assistance”.
I can’t really explain the look on the shop assistants face but ‘Rottweiler licking piss off a thistle’ comes the closest.  She didn’t say a word, she didn’t really need to in all fairness, but after I had paid and started doing the walk of shame out of the store, I could feel her contemptuous stare boring into the back of my scull.  One only matched in intensity by the walking iceberg next to me, an iceberg oft referred to as the Mrs.
Lady Luck finally stated to take pity on me and the ride to school was free of traffic and red lights.  With three minutes to spare I triumphantly ushered the children through the school gates.  The Wife’s perma-scowl was starting to soften and I felt the tension start to ease out of my shoulders.  I honestly tried to suppress the smug grin that begun to form on my face when I saw the other stay at home dad in the playground.  A dad who was holding the hand of a full uniformed son, poor kid, how could you forget, pah?
The smile started to wobble when I saw the offspring of both Yummy and Slummy mummy, who were both in school uniforms of varying tidiness.  I turned to the Mrs and her perma-scowl was back.  I pointed to the sign on the door, Look, see, it quite clearly says “The children will be taking part in a sporting event so can you please ensure they are wearing sports clothing on Thursday 26th April.”
At least I’m ready for next week then.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

It's the little things

I recently asked myself the question ‘Am I depressed or do depressing things keep happening to me?’  I sat and thought about this for about a month before I actually uttered it out loud – and in that month I started mentally listing all the things that depressed me, which in itself was depressing, a double-bummer.

So inspired by a Bob Crampon article, I decided to list the stuff I like – a piece of positive thinking therapy if you will.
Bees, watching them, hearing them, clinging on to the quasi-Buddhist belief that I may come back as one.
Beating my daughters mates achievement scores on the Xbox (sorry Lucy, currently beating you by 130 on Skyrim, ha ha).
A new shaped pasta – grain pasta is this month’s fad.
Smoking, even though I haven’t in 5 years.
The postman holding an Amazon box.
Finding one of my special blue writing pens in the kids bedroom…with the lid still on.
Growing basil on my kitchen window.  My new bird feeder.
My latest phenomenon of waking up with a song I haven’t heard in years, stuck in my head (this was also on my depressed list as a sign of a possible brain tumour).
Smoked paprika, juniper berries, flaked rock salt, bread, frying Szechuan peppers for the pepper mill and adding Vermouth to pasta sauces.
Coltrane when I’m sad.
Coltrane when I’m happy.
Remembering something the wife forgot.  The year’s first daffodil.  The pennies that our house is full of.
The smell of a new bottle of washing up liquid and finding an awesome new recipe in a cookbook.
Having a garage for the first time in my life and filling it with man stuff.
The rest of the family considering the said garage as off-limits in deference to my masculinity.
Budleigh Salterton.
Cold pillows and warm towels.
Hearing the kids laugh every time I wake up and let one rip.  Letting one rip in general.
Looking back at a now clean room.  New taste buds.  Adidas trainers (black) ((always)).
Moleskine notebooks, stationary and new batteries.
Vinyl records on display.  Double glazing and thick walls. 
Saturday mornings spent watching a kids movie, followed by Saturday Kitchen, whilst still in my PJ’s.
Taking my shoes and socks off.  Big wine glasses, half full.
Ice cubes, vodka, limes and Russchian.
The first pint of a Saturday lunchtime.
BOGOF deals on something I actually need.
My harmonica not judging me for my awful attempts at learning to play it.
Wry smiles, a curious raised eyebrow and a barely suppressed laugh.
Lem Motlow, Gary Larson and Nelson Mandela.
Pointless websites and downloading new fonts.
Locks on toilet doors, autographs and autumn.
Trivial amounts of trivia.
Miso paste, thumb rings and a fresh razor blade (not together).
Planet Dork and their parachuting metal mice.
Wild expectations but never mine.  Crap magic by young children.
Red and White, fiddling with corks and Wild Wood.
Beeping strangers and then waving madly.  Finding short cuts.  Singing in the car…alone. 
Doing keepy ups and kicking footballs.
QT in HD with JD.
Being able to forward through adverts.
Writing this list.